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Chess: a cognitive training ground against the aging of the brain

In the world of chess, after the age of 50 you become a senior. But this does not mean you stop playing or competing. Masters and champions who are about to compete in the 2022 Senior Team Chess World Championship, which takes place in Acqui Terme from 20 to 29 June, are well aware of this. Athletes who have little to envy to their younger colleagues, thanks to a brain kept in shape by constant training: chess – also ensures science – is the perfect gym to refine cognitive skills and keep the physiological effects of aging at bay . He explained it to us Anna Cantagalloneurologist and physiatrist, scientific director of the clinical center Brain Care and professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Reggio Calabria.

Cantagallo, is playing chess a beneficial activity for the elderly?
Chess is a useful discipline at any age to keep the brain healthy. During a game of chess, all brain areas are activated, not just those related to the solution of complex problems. The occipital lobe, for example, dedicated to vision, necessary to elaborate mental patterns and make mental rotations while we plan the next moves. The parietal lobes, which allow an overview of the board, and the frontal lobes, which deal with planning and problem solving. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is also very active, dedicated to working memory, the Ram with which the brain stores environmental information in the short term, processes and uses it, and then gets rid of it, essential for rapidly elaborating strategies during a match.

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Can we talk about a complete brain exercise?
This is the case, especially if you play live. Since this is an activity in which you compete with another player, having him in front of you allows you to train the emotional functions of the brain. It therefore improves the theory of mind and empathy, that is, the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, understand what he thinks and what emotions he experiences. And it also perfects emotional control, because during a match we try to hide our reasoning and emotions from the opponent.

How can we protect the brain from aging?
Like the rest of the body, the brain also needs to be trained to keep it healthy. The more the brain is activated, the more it maintains its plasticity, which from the age of 50 becomes essential to slow down the natural decline of our cognitive faculties. As the working memory, which begins to worsen after the age of 45, or emotional control, which decreases from the age of 65. Any pastime that engages our brain is useful in countering these effects of time passing. For those who love chess, however, several researches have shown that it is a perfect activity. A study carried out on players aged between 55 and 90, for example, concluded that if we measure the cognitive performance of those who have attended a chess course, compared to those who have dedicated themselves to other games or activities, those of chess players they are 65 percent higher. Another study, which followed 500 people over 75 for five years, showed that those who engaged in chess for a significant period of time could delay the onset of degenerative brain diseases by an average of one and a half years.

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Is a game every now and then enough to see these benefits? Or do you need a certain consistency in training?
After the age of 75 to take advantage of chess as a cognitive gymnasium requires a certain commitment: at least 10-11 hours a week. This does not mean that a less intense activity is useless, but to obtain the benefits that have emerged from the research, a significant time commitment is required. On the other hand, it is known that cognitive training takes time: about double that required for physical exercise. And if we think that the WHO recommends three to five hours of aerobic activity per week for the elderly to stay healthy, we see that all things considered add up.

Are there any contraindications for playing chess in old age?
Any intense activity must be approached with due caution. Competitive play can cause anxiety disorders, and heart rate and pulmonary gas exchanges increase during matches. We must therefore remember that chess, especially if practiced at a competitive level, is a sport, albeit a sport of the mind. And in fact, a competitive sports medical certificate is required to participate in tournaments. That said, the fact that it also engages hearts and lungs means that playing chess can also be beneficial for the body, despite being considered a sedentary activity. While playing chess you certainly can’t lose weight, but activating the heart serves to improve the variability of the heart rate at rest, which is an important indicator of cardiovascular health.

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